Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Illusion of "Design" in Human Societies

Marvin Brown writes (8 May) in Business Models, Design Management, Economy, issue 10: CIVILIZING THE ECONOMY: “Designing the future Economy” HERE 
“Designing the Future Economy”.
“Good design begins with a process of discovery. Let us look at where this deeply held belief comes from. Although there are several sources, probably none is more influential than the writings of Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith began his economic design with a four-stage conjectural story of human evolution. The first human nation was a nation of hunters, which then evolved into a nation of shepherds and farmers, and later a nation of traders, or what he called a commercial nation. This fourth stage was civilized society for Smith, where governments protected people’s property, and where the “invisible hand” transformed individual self-interest into a benefit for all. I think he thought that if we could design an economy where individuals could follow their self-interest, it would actually bring about a wealthy nation.
Adam Smith did not design an alternative society, nor did he invent the four ages of mankind.  He summarized what he observed as the essentially distinctive features of human history as the age of Hunters, Shepherds, Agriculture, and Commerce (Lectures in Jurisprudence, 1.27: 14, 1762). 
Laws, property, moral norms, and governance, evolved over long periods of time in several different forms, none of which were ‘designed’ by an individual genius or a committee of geniuses, or a king, philosopher, or warrior.  Some societies thrived for a long time, others did not last a generation, and others gradually changed into something else.  Across Europe, Asia, Central America, and pockets elsewhere, the stone detritus of ‘civilisations’, and the swollen earthen mounds of isolated prehistoric settlements, are studied, classified, and analysed by anthropologists, sociologist, economists, and historians, adding to the remnants of written accounts and records that appeared after the ages of writing, painting, and folklore.  Human speech became possible after the faculty of speech evolved within biological evolution that brought changes among proto-humans and, later, modern Homo sapiens, in small, scattered groups across varied natural environments.
Marvin Brown can rest assured that Adam Smith never said that “an (not ‘the’) ‘invisible hand’ transformed individual self-interest into a benefit for all”.  That is a crass, if now ubiquitous, invention by some modern economists (Paul Samuelson, et al) who invented the notion and the attribution to Adam Smith during the Cold War to bolster their (as it happens true) belief that capitalism was a superior economic system to Soviet communism in creating wealth among masses of people, not just the few.  All migration of desperate populations from poverty economies is in one direction only, from the poorest world to the richest, capitalist world.   Any march out of Harlem and other slums to poorer non-capitalist countries has so far passed noticed.  However, the gentrification of former 'capitalist' slums as populations raise their living standards has been noticed (and dramatised; see The Soprano's).   In fact, what is most noticeable in recent capitalist countries is the moving out of aspiring younger generations of former slum dwellers to other richer capitalist suburbs, in part because gentrification in their area is 'too slow', which increases the pressures on those remaining in the old slums, or joining them from other poor, part capitalist societies and assorted tyrannies.
Marvin Brown asks: “Can we design an economy that provides for everyone?”  My short answer is: “No, we can’t”.  His basic problem is his assumption that societies can be “designed". In the history of human kind, nobody designed any of the varied societies that have been experienced by those who lived within them. You can amuse yourself by ‘designing” an ideology, a religion, or a superstition, which may catch on through a small coterie of followers, like the futile, invented language of Esperanto, once popular in certain political leftwing factions for a few decades in the late 19th and throughout the 20th centuries, with unreliable numbers of adherents speaking it ranging from a few thousands to a couple of million, both estimates declining.
However, successfully designing whole societies is way off track and beyond the reach of humans (I exclude the possibility of a small post-nuclear holocaust survivors' society).   You can adopt the social norms of another society, usually mangling them in the process.  You can even enforce your design by resort to limited political, religious, or mystical tyrannies. But you cannot alter every major aspect of how a society with 7 billion people in it functions without destabilising it into the eventual failed tyranny of the utopian dreams that inspire artificial designs.  The very attempt to force changes on societies, whether in pursuit of worthy socio-political goals or for eligibility for an imagined religious afterlife are futile, though attempts to bring them about will prove disastrous.


Blogger Brian Barker said...

Many ill-informed people describe Esperanto as "failed" - others say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.

Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby. More recently this international language was used to address the United Nations in Bonn.

During a short period of 125 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook and Google translate recently added to its prestigious list of 64 languages.

Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

Esperanto is a living language - see

Their online course has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can't be bad :)

2:18 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

Well, I think if you want to redesign an economy so it works better for all you have to redesign people and how they think. You would have to surgically remove from everybody things like echos and testosterone. You basically have to have people thinking all the same and come to a mass agreement on how things should be done with no room for disagreement. That, as we know, is impossible.

No, evolution is the best bet. It's more convincing about how things should be done in the long run.

In some cultures a better designed and working economy might be the absence of women in the work force.

3:04 pm  
Blogger Marvin Brown said...

The first principle of ethics is that things could be otherwise, and the second is that people disagree about how things should be. A determinist would disagree with the first, but by disagreeing, would agree with the second.

If things could be otherwise, then we face the question of how things could be. That is different than the question of how we change things. Still, until we answer the first, we will have little use for the second.

If one thinks that slavery was not designed--that it was determined by some force--then ethics becomes impossible.

If counting on evolution is the final word, then we might as well stop talking.

6:45 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

H Marvin
Thank you for your response.
We disagree about how changes come about. Discomfort with the current status quo may or may not lead to changes over time, but the nature of what brings about change is controversial. That it a political question, with all caveats that politics suggests.
An hunter-gatherer band ('go west when a baby dies' or east when three women mensurate)' had a 360 degree choice of where to hunt or gather each morning. Design is akin to some decision 'rule' applying. Humans left the forests (why?); it is unlikely that the band sat down and designed the alternative of farming - we know it took several millennia for farming to spread from Asia-minor to western Europe and many millennia before it appeared (independently) in the Americas (and it by-passed much of Africa until recently).
By all means speculate on 'better' designs.

Slavery was (separately) common on several continents, seemingly with population increases and, perhaps, what from Smith described as the 'natural; disposition of some men to dominate others. It is often associated with violence and punishment. The fact that others (eg. Smith) were opposed to slavery indicates that ethics are not impossible. However, the Anti-slavery ( a single issue) Act that was passed eventually, did not abolish slavery, nor did the US civil war. It continued - and continues - in Arab countries, fewer each decade.
Single-issues are not of the same dynamic, as a total 'redesign' of whole societies.

11:11 am  
Blogger airth10 said...

Gavin writes, "....but the nature of what brings about change is controversial."

The least controversial argument about what brings on change is science and technology. Social and political change has been driven by those entities and created the governing systems that have enshrined the change.

11:35 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Of course change is bought about by events - a new technology - if it takes-off. The chinese invented just about everything that Europeans later invented centuries later, but it did not take off in China, because other necessary influences were not present. Among these were the total absolutism of Chinese society, broadly summed as no liberties for individuals who invented things to innovate and develop markets out with Imperial control.
What is not controversial nobody every 'inventeed' a new society

4:32 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

Gavin, you are right. But I took it for granted that we were talking about the modern world. Forgive me.

There are other things to consider that makes change possible, like having a mass market for technology. Without the market for new technology change is not going to occur. That is why the technology invented centuries ago by the Chinese didn't make much difference in changing things, because a substantial market for it didn't exist.

Today there is such a mass market and so many new technologies that change is phenomenal because of it.

6:23 pm  

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